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Customer Review

on 10 February 2002
First, a note of introduction. Kappa are mythical creatures once thought to have inhabited Japan's lakes and rivers. A kind of beaked, amphibian monkey with scales, they were horrible little monsters that lured people into the water to devour them, or to extract an equally mythical pearl-like organ via the unfortunate victim's anus. Kappa are now viewed distinctly differently by the Japanese, as cute and cuddly mascots or commercial or community icons. Akutagawa's novel represents an important point in the evolution of these creatures, but it also represents far more.
Kappa is a satire of Japanese society and will probably remind readers of Sir Thomas More's 'Utopia', which satirised English society in the early sixteenth century. The tale is recounted by a doctor in a mental asylum, whose patient claims to have visited Kappaland and lived there for several years. In Kappaland, many things are very different from Japan; it is almost an inversion. Sexual and societal norms are turned on their heads, so that it is the women who voraciously pursue the men, for instance. Militarism is not eschewed in Kappaland as in Japan, but rather favoured as a method of population control. Abortion is not an issue, since children are asked, before emerging from the womb, if they wish to be born; if they do not, they are not, and instead shrivel away. Capitalism in particular comes under a particularly savage critique, with unemployed workers being eaten as a matter of course by the others. When the protagonist challenges this apparently barbaric practice, he is told that the practice of selling daughters into prostitution and capitalism's other deprevating effects as prevailing in Japan are far more barbaric.
Akutagawa apparenly saw himself as kappa-esque, and drew pictures of himself as a kappa, so there is the possibility that Kappa is quasi-autobiographical. He committed suicide shortly after this, his last work (and his masterpiece) was published; perhaps he considered that his aims had been fulfilled. Whatever his reasons, the author's life certainly gives an interesting additional spin to his final novel. Kappa: A Novel is a superb and stinging satire of post-war Japanese society that has relevant commentary spanning many other societies (indeed, Kappa can be read as a critique of the westernising path Japan has chosen to follow). Highly recommended and very entertaining.
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